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Board Asks Administration to Prioritize Long Term Facilities Needs

cafeteriaIn the past six months, the Scarsdale School administration has put forth a dizzying amount of data and a stream of evolving proposals for a 2017, now 2018, $67 million bond referendum. The lengthy board meeting agendas lacked opportunity for discussion by the Board members so it has been difficult to assess what the seven members of the Board of Education think about key issues such as Greenacres School, facilities improvements and air conditioning.

As the date for a vote by the Scarsdale Board of Education on the bond referendum draws near, the Board allowed an opportunity for discussion among board members at their October 23 meeting.

In almost an hour and a half of discussion Board members revealed a wide diversity of views on the administration's current proposal and questioned its philosophical underpinnings and the implications of these decisions on the future. They called for a long-term prioritization plan for facilities expenditures for the coming decade.

The Board faces decisions on the renovation and expansion of Greenacres, funding for a large list of facilities needs including roofs, boilers, drainage and ADA compliance as well as the question of air conditioning some or all of the schools. Should some of these needs be funded from future operating budgets? How much should be bonded and how much can be taken care of on an annual basis?

Further complicating the question was a proposal for an Energy Performance Contract (EPC) to fund $10.9 million of work outside of the bond. This would have been used to purchase some of the boilers, lighting and other energy saving items. The Superintendent has indicated that the Energy Performance Contract will no longer be a part of the bond process. Therefore, some of the boilers that were to be funded in the EPC will not be included in the work funded by the bond. The EPC is still on the table but will be decided on at a future date.

Board President Bill Natbony opened the discussion saying that since the Board gave the administration a "soft nod" to the proposed renovations at Greenacres School in July, many more issues have arisen. For example, would the inclusion of a cafeteria at Greenacres mean that the remaining elementary schools should have one as well? Should $17.9 million in Priority 3 facilities needs be funded in this bond?

Board member Chris Morin spoke first, asking for the Board to "back up" and put these decisions into a "broader context." He said, "What are our instructional goals? ... We are discussing what might be $100 million in capital spending. Without a long-term plan we need to talk about these broader issues. With fixed enrollment is our instructional improvement already built out? Will we need more language instruction or STEAM? Do we need to just focus on facilities?"

He continued, "Will adding extra space add extra custodial costs? What are our needs in the future? What about the Alternative school? Choice? Do we need cafeterias at all elementary schools? We may add tens of millions for air conditioning. None of this has been prioritized."

Dr. Hagerman responded, "Bond funds are not fungible. We can't use these funds to pay for staff."

Lee Maude thanked the administration for a thorough presentation saying, "It was a long time coming." She said, facilities like "Choice and cafeterias are really big numbers and I don't know that our future bond capacity can cover those things.Since you came to us with this long list of needs, you are really saying we can't do those other things. By saying "yes" to this $67 million we may be saying "no" to other issues further down the road." Referring to the 2014 bond she said, "When we did the previous bond we were told there were not other needs."

Art Rublin reminded the group that in 2014 the building committees agreed that the "Issues at Greenacres are too big to address now, and will be addressed in 2017. There was foresight." He said that after work by two architectural firms two sets of engineers and three building committees "I respect that we are not building a new school at Greenacres." I think what's on the table is a thoughtful approach to the delivery of program. Perfect can be the enemy of the good enough."

About tax neutrality he said, "I am not wedded to tax neutral. What has made this district great was not always tax neutral. If there is a need in the future, I hope that the community will be supportive. I think we can do what needs to be done in operating budgets."

Scott Silberfein said, "What is a rough outline of future facilities needs. I don't want to bind future boards, but we did feel bound to do what we did at Greenacres this time."

Chris Morin responded, "Of course we can't bind future boards but that's not an excuse for doing long term planning and having a vision for the future. .... Building multipurpose space, adding restrooms, adding instructional space... I am not wedded to tax neutral but I am wedded to prioritization and value. We are building a cafeteria at Greenacres without an understanding of the lunch programs at other schools."

Art Rublin asked, "Can we move some of these items into the operating budget? Can we go over line items one by one?"

Nina Cannon asked, "If we take items off and move them to the operating budget what is the impact? Does it tie our hands not to offer programs in the future? There are always going to be things we could add. I would like it to be as close to tax neutral as possible. I am mindful of the high taxes. We need to give the lion's share to Greenacres. They have been waiting. They have been put aside. We are giving them everything they have been waiting for. In terms of the other items I have relied on the building conditions survey. I trust our administration to provide us with a list that is most pressing." It doesn't make sense to burden this bond with items that have not been thoroughly flushed through.

Discussing a proposal to air condition all district classrooms that would add an incremental $24 million to the proposed $67 million bond, Rublin said, "Air conditioning the classrooms would be $24 million above and beyond the ventilation costs that are already in the bond. That would be ( a total of) $91 million. The operating budget for 2017-18 is $3 mm with another $1.3 mm for plant maintenance. I think air conditioning would be a good decision for now and in the years to come. I think there is a teaching and learning dimension to air conditioning and improved performance. Can we fund some of this facilities work in coming operating budgets over a ten-year span? To what extent can boilers be dealt with in future operating budgets? Is it possible to use a multi-year plan to fund replacement of roofs that are now in fair to good condition? Can we wait until the next bond in 2028? He discussed the fact that the district's fund balance is $9 million larger than it was five years ago and there is a $5mm health reserve fund.

Dr. Hagerman explained that the facilities list has already been prioritized and some of these projects have already been placed into current operating budgets. He said, that if the district did plan to fund facilities in the operating budgets, the district would have to designate more money for facilities in upcoming budgets and those would compete with programmatic dollars.

Scott Silberfein said, "Residents want a knowable, planned tax increase. Overall, if we kick things off, and something does not go well I worry we will get hit with the roof bill that we have to do that year. Do we cut a teacher or two or raise taxes to accommodate the roof?" Silberfein also asked for the administration to provide information for the public on the sustainable elements of the current facilities proposal.

Natbony continued to ask the administration to weigh the benefits and risks of funding some of this work now and putting some of it off for the future.

Chris Morin asked for more planning on cafeterias and the lunch program and Art Rublin said, "Just because we are putting in a kitchen at Greenacres does not mean we need one everywhere else."

Dr. Hagerman warned that a long-term plan drafted now would be subject to the priorities of future Boards and the needs at the time. However he agreed that the administration could provide a longer-term plan to the Board. It's not clear whether or not this information would be available in time for the administration's final bond recommendation scheduled for November 13.

Watch the entire meeting online here:

There will be a public forum on the proposed budget on November 6 at Scarsdale High School and everyone is invited to attend to learn more.

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